Dismissal with Bite

August 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

Leesa McCharen was divorced from Judson Allred, III, in 1994. In 2012, Leesa sued Judson for arrearages in medical insurance premiums, private school and private college tuition, and various other claims, totalling more than $530,000. Her two children were 24 and 27 years old, respectively, at the time of her suit.

A year of frenzied litigation ensued, in the course of which Leesa’s claims shrunk to around $136,000. Leesa’s last pleading was filed August 12, 2013. On October 1, 2013, Judson filed a motion to dismiss for failure to join the two daughters as necessary parties, and the court apparently ordered Leesa to join them, although no order was entered. Nothing further happened of record, until …

On June 1, 2015, the chancery clerk issued a R41(d) notice. No response from Leesa. The court dismissed the case by order entered July 9, 2015.

On August 7, 2015, Leesa filed a motion to reinstate the case. There were some fruitless negotiations between attorneys about agreeing to a reinstatement. Nothing else transpired until …

February 25, 2016. On that date, the chancellor held a hearing at which Judson did not appear. Leesa argued that the clerk had mis-styled the case, causing her failure to react. The chancellor reinstated the case. Then, on April 28, 2016, Judson discovered the reinstatement when he was served with discovery requests in the revenant case. He responded with a motion to set aside the order. On May 17, 2016, in a proceeding that the chancellor deemed to be a R60 motion, he dismissed Leesa’s case without prejudice.

In the case of McCharen v. Allred, handed down August 1, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair wrote for the unanimous court:

¶8. The trial court has the inherent authority to dismiss an action for lack of prosecution. Wallace v. Jones, 572 So. 2d 371, 375 (Miss. 1990). We apply a substantial evidence/manifest error standard of review to the trial court’s grant or denial of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 41 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Ill. Cent. R.R. v. Moore, 994 So. 2d 723, 733 (¶30) (Miss. 2008). Also, we will not reverse the trial court’s denial of relief from judgment pursuant to Rule 60 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure unless the trial court has abused its discretion. Harrison v. McMillan, 828 So. 2d 756, 773 (¶51) (Miss. 2002).

DISCUSSION

¶9. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d)(1) states that the “case will be dismissed by the court for want of prosecution unless within thirty days following said mailing [notifying the attorneys the case will be dismissed], action of record is taken or an application in writing is made to the court and good cause shown why it should be continued as a pending case.” Leesa left her case dormant for almost two years. As a result, the clerk filed a motion to dismiss on June 1, 2015. Leesa did nothing. Rule 41(d)(1) also states that “[i]f action of record is not taken or good cause is not shown, the court shall dismiss each such case without prejudice.” M.R.C.P. 41(d)(1) (emphasis added). So on July 9, 2015, the court entered an order to that effect. Twenty-nine days later, Leesa filed a motion to reinstate the case.

¶10. The court originally granted Leesa’s motion, presumably because neither Judson nor his counsel was present at the February 2016 hearing. But after listening to Judson’s argument at the May 2016 hearing, the chancellor found no good cause had been shown and dismissed the case without prejudice under Rule 60(b)(6). In doing so, he addressed Leesa’s claim that she did not recognize the motion to dismiss, styled “Moore v. Crim”:

[Leesa’s argument that the clerk failed] to properly docket [the case] is a red herring. It’s pretty much clearly docketed as this case . . . . (T)he clerk may have reversed the order of the names, but, goodness gracious, the last name “Allred” leads in both reference to plaintiff and defendant, so I don’t think you can possibly make that argument with a straight face.

¶11. On appeal, Leesa abandons her sole argument from the trial court and instead argues that: (1) prior to dismissal, the statute of limitations of Leesa’s claim had expired; and (2) Judson delayed litigation with frivolous motions. It is well established that this Court will not consider issues raised for the first time on appeal. Fowler v. White, 85 So. 3d 287, 293 (¶21) (Miss. 2012). Thus, we decline to address Leesa’s current arguments.

¶12. Rule 60(b)(6) allows a judge the opportunity to relieve a party from a final judgment for any justifiable reason. M.R.C.P. 60(b)(6). After careful review of the record, we find the chancellor acted within his discretion in finding that Leesa failed to show any compelling reason for her delay in prosecution. Accordingly, we affirm the chancellor’s order setting aside the order reinstating the case.

Pretty straightforward, even though the procedural path was convoluted.

When you receive a 41(d) notice, you need to file something of record that will have the effect of advancing the case on the docket. A previous post about what action you need to take is at this link. A letter to the clerk will not do the job. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Some chancellors (I included) take the position that once the case is dismissed, it can not be “reinstated;” the only possibility for revival being a timely-filed R60 motion, which requires that you meet its criteria.

Making the Cap Fit

March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

Chancery courts can award punitive damages. It doesn’t happen every day, and it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. When they do award punitive damages, chancery courts are as bound as other courts by MCA 11-1-65(1)(a), which imposes a cap of 2% of the defendant’s net worth for defendants with net worth of $50 million or less.

The case of Moore v. McDonald, handed down February 7, 2017, the appellants argued that the trial court erred in assessing punitive damages in excess of their claimed net worth. We’ve already posted about this case here, here, and here, because there’s a lot to talk about in it. It’s the property-line dispute in which the Moores had violated a previously affirmed judgment setting the parties’ boundary line. The Moores appealed, and Judge Wilson’s opinion will fill you in on the applicable facts:

¶8. The Moores do not dispute that their conduct was malicious such that an award of punitive damages was appropriate. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-1-65(1)(a). Their only objection is that the punitive award exceeds two percent of their net worth in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-1-65(3). See id. § 11-1-65(3)(a)(vi) (“[N]o award of punitive damages shall exceed . . . [t]wo percent (2%) of the defendant’s net worth for a defendant with a net worth of Fifty Million Dollars ($50,000,000.00) or less.”). On appeal, they argue that the chancellor was required to accept at face value their own representations of their net worth and cap punitive damages at $1,268. However, in the court below, the Moores failed to raise the issue of the statutory cap on punitive damages. The Moores also failed to introduce any reliable evidence of their net worth. Accordingly, they were not entitled to the benefit of the statutory cap on punitive damages.

¶9. On March 20, 2015, at the conclusion of the hearing on the McDonalds’ contempt petition, the chancellor found that an award of $10,000 in punitive damages would be appropriate. After that hearing, the Moores, who had been proceeding pro se, decided to hire a lawyer. At a hearing on May 8, 2015, the Moores’ recently retained counsel argued that the burden was on the McDonalds to prove the Moores’ net worth before the court could award any amount of punitive damages. Indeed, counsel asserted that “[t]he case law is clear” on this point. At the Moores’ request, the chancellor then continued the case to July 7, 2015, for a hearing on attorneys’ fees and the Moores’ net worth for purposes of assessing punitive damages.

¶10. At the July 7 hearing, counsel for the Moores acknowledged that his argument at the prior hearing was mistaken and that proof of net worth is not necessary to support an award of punitive damages. Counsel then argued that either side could offer such evidence, which the court should then consider in assessing punitive damages. However, in all of the proceedings in the chancery court, the Moores never—at any hearing or in any pleading—mentioned the statutory cap on punitive damages or argued that punitive damages must be capped at two percent of their net worth or any other number. “It is a long-established rule in this state that a question not raised in the trial court will not be considered on appeal.” Adams v. Bd. of Sup’rs of Union Cty., 177 Miss. 403, 170 So. 684, 685 (1936). “Moreover, it is not sufficient to simply mention or discuss an issue at a hearing. The rule is that a ‘trial judge cannot be put in error on a matter which was never presented to him for decision.’” City of Hattiesburg v. Precision Constr. LLC, 192 So. 3d 1089, 1093 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting Methodist Hosps. of Memphis v. Guardianship of Marsh, 518 So. 2d 1227, 1228 (Miss. 1988)). Accordingly, the Moores waived any argument that the chancellor should have applied the statutory cap.

¶11. Procedural bar notwithstanding, the Moores also failed to present evidence sufficient to require the chancellor to apply the cap. The only evidence that the Moores introduced of their net worth was a Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05 financial statement that they apparently signed on the morning of the hearing. The Moores’ 8.05 statement estimated the value of their home and land as $85,000 with a $22,000 mortgage balance; claimed household goods, furniture, and clothing worth $400; disclosed checking accounts with a combined balance of $325 or less; and listed two vehicles—one worth $5,600 or less with a $5,600 loan, and the other worth $1,500 with an $1,800 loan. The Moores gave a total value of their assets of $0, although the assets listed totaled $63,425.

The court went on to describe: Carolyn Moore’s evasive answers to questions about $17,000 cash on hand and her admission that their 8.05 was inaccurate; the evasive testimony of her husband about false and misleading bankruptcy filings; their failure to offer tax returns or a copy of a loan application they had submitted to a local blank shortly before trial; and the Moores’ smirking and mocking demeanor at trial. The COA concluded:

¶15. The chancellor did not err by reaffirming her $10,000 punitive award. “[P]roof of net worth is not required to award punitive damages. . . . [F]or a defendant to mitigate potential punitive damages, it is his responsibility to present proof of his net worth and financial condition.” Woodkrest Custom Homes Inc. v. Cooper, 108 So. 3d 460, 469 (¶¶41-42) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing C&C Trucking Co. v. Smith, 612 So. 2d 1092, 1102, 1105 (Miss. 1992)); accord Coleman & Coleman Enters., 106 So. 3d at 320 (¶33). Furthermore, the “evidence must be sufficient to enable the trial court to determine the defendant’s current net worth, according to generally accepted accounting principles.” In re Miss. Medicaid Pharm. Average Wholesale Price Litig. (“AWP Litig.”), 190 So. 3d 829, 846 (¶40) (Miss. 2015) (opinion of Chandler, J., joined by Kitchens and King, JJ., affirming). The Moores failed to meet their burden. They presented only one self-serving and admittedly inaccurate document of their own creation. Clearly, they did not present “evidence . . . sufficient to enable the [chancellor] to determine [their] current net worth, according to generally accepted accounting principles.” Id.

Not much more needs to be said. If you want to preserve a point for appeal, it must have been presented to the chancellor in trial or pre-trial in a form suitable for the judge to rule on it, or you have waived it. And the burden is on you to prove net worth so as to apply the punitive damages cap.

 

Waiving Discovery Problems

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

It happens from time to time, especially in cases that seem to have dragged around for ‘way too long, that the parties appear on the trial date assigned and one attorney launches into a tale of woe about how the other side never answered their interrogatories and requests for production, and now we need a continuance to get those answers or records, or whatever. My solution is below, but what in the world is one supposed to do when confronted by such a woeful situation?

That was the question before the chancellor In Bruenderman v. Bruenderman, a COA case decided January 10, 2017.

In that case, Anna Bruenderman was awarded custody of the parties’ minor child. Ty Bruenderman appealed, arguing that, if only he had been able to get Anna’s medical records into evidence, he would have prevailed, and it was error for the trial judge not to have ordered their production.

The COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶14. Ty asserts he should have been granted access to Anna’s psychiatric records because they are not privileged under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 503.

¶15. Rule 503 states that there is a privilege between patient and psychotherapist; however, Rule 503(d)(4) states that the privilege does not apply to communications—including records—regarding a party’s physical, mental, or emotional health or drug or alcohol condition when relevant to child custody, visitation, adoption, or termination of parental rights. The comments to the rule state that some factors the court should consider when evaluating such evidence under Rule 503 include whether: (1) the treatment was recent enough to be relevant; (2) substantive independent evidence of serious impairment exists; (3) sufficient evidence is unavailable elsewhere; (4) court-ordered evaluations are an inadequate substitute; and (5) given the severity of the alleged disorder, communications made in the course of treatment are likely to be relevant. M.R.E. 503 cmt.

¶16. Here, Ty subpoenaed Anna’s psychiatrist for a deposition one week prior to trial and did not request a continuance to allow him time to attempt to obtain those records. Though the chancery court ruled that Ty could pursue Anna’s records, he did not, nor did Ty ever move to compel the production of those records. It is well established that the burden is on the movant to request a continuance to pursue discovery matters, and failure to do so constitutes waiver. Ford Motor Co. v. Tennin, 960 So. 2d 379, 394-95 (¶54) (Miss. 2007); see also generally URCCC 4.04; M.R.C.P. 37.

[Note: the reference to URCCC is to the circuit and county court rules. The applicable Uniform Chancery Court Rule (UCCR) is 1.10]

¶17. The chancellor noted that there was no testimony of any major mental or physical problems of either party nor any evidence showing that discovery of any of Anna’s psychiatric records would be relevant to the chancery court’s custody analysis. The chancellor found that, based on what was before him, Anna’s counseling had more to do with the divorce than any underlying issue affecting her ability to properly care for her and Ty’s child. Thus, we find this issue is without merit.

So, the deal is that, yes, you can obtain the records under MRE 503, but unless someone voluntarily hands them to you, which is rare in this HIPAA era, you will have to bring the matter before the judge and show: the records’ recency and relevance; that there is substantive independent evidence of the condition; unavailability of this evidence through another source; court-ordered evaluations will not do the job; and communications between doctor and patient are likely to be relevant in the circumstances. AND you must do all that timely, or you have waived your right to complain about it.

In other words, as with all things discovery, you must timely file to compel, and timely follow up if necessary, or you will have waived the issue.

There are seldom last-minute motions to continue for discovery problems in my court because you can not get a date for trial on the merits unless and until you certify in blood that all discovery issues have been resolved, all discovery is completed, and the matter is ready for trial (Okay, I’m exaggerating about the blood part, but not by much).

The chancellor mus be fair, but that means fair to both sides. When you show up unprepared to try your case, expecting that the judge will congenially grant your request for a continuance, you are taking a big chance. If the motion is even in the slightest unfair to the other side, you will be overruled and told to tee it up.

The Cost of Making a Bad Impression

February 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

Kenneth and Carolyn Moore were engaged for years in a boundary dispute with Roy and Donna McDonald and Ruth Belton (collectively the McDonalds). In 2010, the COA unanimously affirmed a chancellor’s ruling establishing the boundary line between them in Moore v. McDonald, 47 So.3d 1186 (Miss. App. 2010). The trial court’s judgment enjoined the Moores from disturbing the other parties’ peaceful enjoyment of their property.

The Moores apparently did not take the court rulings well. In 2013, they:

  • used a tractor and auger to install fence posts in the McDonalds’ driveway, rendering it impassable, and forcing them to install a new gate to access their land via a different route;
  • tore down the McDonalds’ fence;
  • uprooted or cut down numerous large crepe myrtle trees on the McDonalds’ property;
  • littered the mcDonalds’ property with debris; and
  • threatened, intimidated, and bullied Donna.

The McDonalds filed a contempt action. Following a hearing, the chancellor found the Moores in contempt and awarded compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and expenses, and punitive damages in the amount of $10,000.

The COA affirmed in Moore v. McDonald, et al., decided February 7, 2017. I posted about this case here previously.

What I found interesting was the way that the Moores behaved at trial, and the record of their other conduct, that most assuredly had an adverse impact on the judge’s view of them.

When the issue of their net worth was before the court, it became clear that the Moores had failed to disclose some $17,000 in cash on hand in their 8.05 financial statement. Mrs. Moore became evasive about it to the extent that even the judge became involved (at ¶12):

Q. Where is the money, Ms. Moore?

A. Well, I’ve got the money. Don’t worry about that.

THE COURT: Well, you do have to tell — I’m worried about that.
Where is the $17,000?

MS. MOORE: My daughter has got it if you want to know the
truth about it.

Q. Do you not have any control about how that money is spent?

A. Well, it’s not spent yet so —

Q. Okay. But you didn’t list that on your 8.05, did you?

A. No, I did not list it.

Q. So, in fact, it’s not correct that this financial declaration reflects
everything that you have got?

A. Well I guess not.

When questioned about a bankruptcy filing that had derailed the case for months and forced the McDonalds to incur more attorney’s fees, Mr. Moore either refused to answer or claimed he had forgotten about omissions and inaccurate valuations.

The chancellor recorded her observations of the Moores’ demeanor and credibility, and it does not paint a pretty picture (at ¶14):

“The Court has reviewed the financial statement of the Moores, . . . [a]nd finds that it is by their own admission inaccurate. $17,000 that was borrowed and placed with their daughter is not included on the financial statement, and that really puts the whole financial statement into question, in addition to the whole line of questioning . . . of Mr. Moore and his dishonesty with the Bankruptcy Court.

The Court has no idea what the value of their property is. I don’t believe that the value is what they say it is. I don’t believe them period. I wish the Appellate Court — because I’m confident that this will be appealed — could sit in this chair and see the snickering periodically of the Moores, both. I remember making a note of that in the initial trial, as well as I have just noted for myself smug looks or at one point, I saw them — Mr. and Ms. Moore – laughing between the two of them while the Court was going on.”

If you think that kind of bad behavior escapes the attention of the chancellor, or that it will have no real impact, you need to think again. It does, and it can have a disastrous impact, as it did in this case.

In a case in my court one of the key witnesses was the ex-husband of one of the parties. His bias against her was emphatic and unmistakable. While he took his oath to testify, he glared at her hatefully. He referred to her by using her several former married surnames (e.g., Mrs. Smith-Jones-Johnson-Davis, etc.) until I cautioned him not to continue doing so. His tone about her was sarcastic and included cutting remarks about her. Standing on its own, I found his testimony incredible, but also it was contradicted in material parts by the credible testimony of one of the woman’s children. The ex-husband’s demeanor played a large role in my decision to ignore his testimony entirely.

This is a major reason why you should spend some quality time with your parties and key witnesses in advance of trial. You need to impress on them that the chancellor is judge and jury. The chancellor has immense power over the case. Chancellors are like everyone else when it comes to assessing someone’s credibility. Sarcasm, evasiveness, argumentativeness, bias; all will undercut your witness’s credibility, possibly fatally.

Squatter’s Rights = No Rights

February 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

In February, 2009, Acey Huey deeded property he owned in a subdivision to his daughter, Fillisa.

On August 7, 2009, Acey signed off on a document entitled, “Repairing and Renting Agreement.” Acey and his brother Tom were named in the document as “Landlords,” and Tom’s daughter, Tommie, was denominated as “Tenant,” of the same property that had been conveyed to Fillisa. The agreement, which was prepared by Tommie’s godmother, provided in part: Tommie would pay rent of $150 per month and repair the property at her sole expense; the Landlords could not raise her rent or evict her without cause; if forced to leave for any reason she would be reimbursed for the labor and material she expended on the property, and for moving expenses and “pain and suffering.”

Filisa did not become aware of the agreement until 2012. In June of that year, she sent Tommie notice to pay rent or vacate, demanding $400 a month in rent, plus a $400 security deposit.

On July 25, 2012, Filisa conveyed the property to LeMorris Strong.

On July 27, 2012, the 2009 “Repairing and Renting Agreement” was filed in the county’s lis pendens records, attached to a “Notice of Subordination, Attornment and Non-Disturbance Agreement.”

On August 14, 2012 Strong recorded his deed from Filisa.

In November, 2012, Strong made written demand for Tommie to cancel the lis pendens notice, including a form to do so, as well as a copy of Mississippi’s Litigation Accountability Act (LAA), MCA 11-55-5.

In 2013, after Tommie had vacated the property, Strong filed suit to remove clouds from and quiet title to the property. Tommie counterclaimed. The chancellor granted Strong the relief he requested, and dismissed Tommie’s counterclaim. She also awarded Strong $3,917.14 in attorney’s fees and costs, ruling that the filing of the lis pendens notice and refusal to withdraw it constituted a violation of the LAA.

In Huey v. Strong, decided December 13, 2016, the COA affirmed with a unanimous opinion by Judge Fair, James not participating.

You can read the opinion for yourself. The point I want to make here is that you need to stop and think before you leap. I don’t know who filed that lis pendens notice for Tommie, but I hope it was the godmother who prepared the original agreement, and not an attorney. When you file a lis pendens notice you may be slandering title unless what you have filed is true, accurate, and has a basis in law. Tommie had a chance to withdraw it but did not, which ended up costing her nearly $4,000 she does not have, judging from the recitation of facts in this case. Here the COA holds that filing a false lis pendens notice can be a violation of the LAA. Damages were relatively small in this case, but they could have been huge.

Years ago, as a young lawyer (and before there was an LAA), a breathless client demanded that I file a mechanic’s lien notice against a subdivision developer only to learn soon after that the client had misrepresented the facts to me, and wanted it done as a vendetta because the developer had elected to begin using another contractor. I notified the client that I was withdrawing the lien and he could file one or anything else in his own right, but that I was not going to participate. My bad for leaping before looking and demanding some documentation or proof of the claim. Had that lien notice botched a sale, I might have been on the hook with my client for damages.

When You Are An Imminent Peril to Your Client

January 25, 2017 § 1 Comment

Earlier this week I saw a piece on a news show about the increasingly rampant practice of thieves stealing tax refunds by filing false tax returns.

In one case, a woman learned that the outlaws had filed a tax return in her name claiming thousands of dollars in fake deductions that resulted in a refund — to them and not her — of $26,000. The refund was directed to a blank (prepaid) credit card where it can not be traced. Of course, the victim had to go through much travail to undo all the damage.

In another case, a man’s tax return with all of his dependency exemptions was hijacked for $5,000.

A tax expert came on screen and said that all a thief requires is the taxpayer’s Social Security Number (SSN), and the number of each co-filer and dependent.

Okay. Let that sink in. All that is required is the SSN’s.

Think about how many documents you have in your possession that are full of your clients’ SSN’s. Every tax return has the taxpayer’s SSN on every single page — sometimes in multiple places. Loan applications have them. Social Security earnings reports and other communications have them.

When you file an 8.05 financial statement and do not redact those SSN’s, you are sending your client’s personal information unprotected out into the world. When you produce unredacted records in discovery, you are violating your clients’ confidences. When you introduce information into evidence that includes SSN’s, you are exposing your clients to fraud.

This is something I have discussed here before. It’s serious, and it has serious implications for you. It won’t be long before PI lawyers discover a fertile new field for liability: lawyers who violate their clients’ financial confidentiality and integrity by not observing either the MEC confidentiality rules or the simple, common-sense precaution of redaction.

It seems like every week I have to caution a lawyer to redact confidential information from documents being introduced into evidence. In one case, we had to take an hour-long recess to allow 10 years of tax returns to be redacted. That should have been done long before the trial date.

The MEC rules make it clear that, if confidential information is filed, it is considered that the client has waived confidentiality. So when you file unredacted information, you have waived confidentiality for your client. Did you have authority to do that? Haven’t you committed an ethical violation when you did it without your client’s express permission?

When Less is Not Better

January 24, 2017 § 1 Comment

You know those annoying R81 linking continuance orders? The ones that you have to have entered on the return day and every successive continuance day to preserve your process? (R81(d)(5)).

This is what many of them look like to me:

The hearing on this matter is continued to the 8th day of February, 2017, at 9:00, a.m.

I think it should say in addition that the defendant (respondent) was called three times at the designated time, and he did not appear. Why? Because he could come up later and claim he was there all along and no one called out to let him know his case was up to be heard. The only record of what happened is the court’s order (unless you are in one of those rare districts where the docket call is on the record).

What about determination of heirship judgments? If you need to continue, and you simply recite that the matter is continued, a person claiming heirship can later pop up and claim that he or she was there and no one called him into the courtroom. Oops. No record to contradict it.

Often in chancery the only record you will have of what transpired is the order or judgment you present to the court. You should want it to be airtight, so you should include all the fact-finding and procedural recitations that the proceedings support. For instance:

  • In an uncontested divorce with a custody claim. Put on proof of Albright factors and address them in your judgment.
  • In an uncontested divorce with some property and alimony claims, put on proof of Ferguson and Armstrong factors, and add findings to your judgment.
  • The proof you present of those factors does not have to be elaborate. It just needs to be enough to justify the court’s signing off on the judgment you present.
  • In a case where the defendant appeared on a previous date or two and agreed to continuance(s), recite that history in your order or judgment.
  • If you published process, recite when, where, and how often published, and that no responsive pleading or other response was made.

The more detail you add, the more successful you will be later when the other party wakes up, realizes he has missed the train, and gets a lawyer to try to rescue him by filing a R59 or 60 motion. Just remember that whatever you recite in your order or judgment has to reflect what really transpired. You won’t get a chancellor to sign off on Albright findings when you never asked your witness the first question about them.

Appealing from a Special Master’s Ruling

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in In the Matter of J.W., decided January 3, 2017, is not likely to go down as a leading case in Mississippi jurisprudence, but for chancery practitioners in particular, it’s one you need to bear in mind.

To make a short story even shorter (the opinion is only three pages long), J.W. appealed from a finding made by a special master that he should be involuntarily committed to the custody of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. The special master followed his findings with an “Order of Admittance after Hearing.” J.W. filed a R59 motion, but the COA does not tell us what the outcome of that was.

No matter. The COA dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because no chancellor ever adopted the special master’s findings in a court order. As the COA’s opinion by Judge Fair concludes:

¶5. “The court may appoint one or more persons in each county to be masters of the court, and the court in which any action is pending may appoint a special master therein.” M.R.C.P. 53. “[A] master’s report has no effect until it is either accepted or rejected by the chancellor.” Davison v. Miss. Dep’t of Human Servs., 938 So. 2d 912, 915 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citing Evans v. Davis, 401 So. 2d 1096, 1099 (Miss. 1981)). Here, there is no order by the chancellor accepting the special master’s report, and there has been no ruling on J.W.’s motion to reconsider. Because there is no final, appealable judgment, we lack jurisdiction and must dismiss. See Newson [v. Newson], 138 So. 3d [275], at 278 (¶11) [(Miss. Ct. App. 2014)].

The big deal here is that many districts around the state employ special masters routinely to handle child support and contempt cases per MCA 9-5-255. It’s an effective tool to free up courtroom time for more complex litigation, and to reduce waiting time for all kinds of hearings. When you get your findings and even a so-called “order” from your special master, however, it’s my opinion that you do not have either an enforceable judgment or a final, appealable judgment unless and until the chancellor has accepted the master’s report. That’s because of the language of MCA 9-5-255(8), which essentially tracks R53.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is that R53(g)(2) specifically directs that:

“The court shall accept the master’s findings of fact unless manifestly wrong. Within ten days after being served with notice of the filing of the report any party may serve written objections thereto on the other parties. Application to the court for action upon the report and upon objections thereto shall be by motion and upon notice as provided by Rule 6(d). The court after hearing may adopt the report or modify it or may adopt the report in whole or in part or may receive further evidence or may recommit it with instructions.”

In Sims, et al. v. Mathis, handed down May 24, 2016, the COA held that it is the duty of the objecting party under R53 not only to file timely, specific objections, but also to set them for hearing and bring them before the court. In those special-master child-support cases, then, any objection needs to be filed within ten days of notice of the master’s findings, and the lawyer or party filing the objections needs to set the objections for hearing and bring the matter on for hearing. If that is not done, the court “shall accept the master’s findings of fact unless manifestly wrong.”

All of the foregoing applies not only to mental commitments and child-support proceedings, but also in every case in which a special master is appointed by the court. Mathis was a partition suit. Special masters are appointed in a wide range of chancery matters.

Communicating: Improving a Basic Skill

December 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

At its heart the legal profession is all about communicating, which consists of at least several elements:

  • First, one must understand that which must be communicated. This entails analysis of the situation to break it down into its legal elements, and then application of the law to those elements.
  • Second, the analysis has to be translated into understandable words.
  • Third, the understandable words have to be presented in an organized, understandable, persuasive manner.

You can probably improve on that, but it suits my purposes for now.

At the trial level, effective communication involves well-written pleadings and briefs or memoranda of law, and oral argument, as well as the way you examine witnesses. At the appellate level, brief-writing and oral argument depend heavily on how well the lawyer can communicate.

Some things that get in the way of effective communication are poor grammar and spelling, improper word choice and usage, and disorganized thinking. And, it should go without saying that your communication is for naught if your legal analysis is flawed.

Here are a few tools to help you craft your communications effectively:

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This little gem at fewer than 100 pages (at least in the worn edition I have), is crammed with useful insights into effective writing. Here you will find such usage solutions as how to create the possessive plural of names ending in s, proper use of semi-colons with clauses, whether to use a singular or plural verb forms with words such as “or” or with linking verbs, and the proper case of pronouns, all presented in clear language with easy-to-grasp examples. There are other sections on principles of composition, matters of form, misused words and expressions, and suggestions for improving your style of writing.
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler, Jeremy Butterfield, editor. When should one use italics? What is the difference between reciprocal and mutual, or apprehend and comprehend, or unless and until? Why the word “literally” conveys the opposite sense of what you intend? Do we still observe rules such as avoiding split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition (hint: it’s usually okay to)? You will find answers to these and many, many other questions that routinely pop up as you write in this useful book that is arranged by subject alphabetically.
  • Any good thesaurus. When you say the same thing over and over using the same words, your words have no impact.
  • A good dictionary. Before you use that word, you might want to look it up (takes three seconds) to make sure it means what you think it does.
  • The Law Prose blog. A gold mine of information on proper and potent use of legal terminology. This is one you should bookmark.
  • Adams on Contract Drafting offers guidance on how to draft contracts in ways that avoid ambiguity and clearly state the intent of the parties. Even if all of your drafting practice consists of property settlement agreements, you can learn something here about how precision in the use of language can make a big difference between success and failure of your instruments.
  • Here’s a link to an article in the ABA Journal Online on How to Bring a More Conversational Tone to Your Writing, which is meritorious in its own right, but illustrates also that there are resources all over the internet that you can bring to bear in your quest to be a more productive communicator.

You may be surprised how, when you concentrate on making your language more concise, correct, and powerful, you will simultaneously discover weaknesses in your legal analysis and thought process that you can shore up and strengthen before you ever dispatch that communication to counsel opposite and the court. That’s the kind of strength that distinguishes a really good lawyer from a mediocre one.

When Alimony is Like an Elephant

November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Six different blind men, for some reason, are asked to feel an elephant and to describe what the creature is like based on their experience. Of course, each one can offer a description based only on his limited groping. One surmises a rope-like creature based on feeling the trunk, another guesses a tree-like creature after feeling the leg, and yet another posits an umbrella-like critter from feeling the ear. And so on. The point being that perception based on limited evidence can be misleading and incomplete.

That takes us to the COA’s decision in Kittrell v. Kittrell, decided October 4, 2016, in which the court was called upon to determine whether the special chancellor erred in concluding that an alimony provision in a PSA was periodic. To set the stage, Judge Lee recited the legal standard and went on to describe the court’s chore:

¶9. “Although a court order imposing alimony must, in general, clearly identify what type of alimony is being awarded and adhere to its traditional characteristics, our ‘Supreme Court has not required consensual support agreements to follow the same terms as for court imposed alimony.’” Id. at 918 (¶30) (quoting Elliott v. Rogers, 775 So. 2d 1285, 1289 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000)). “Rather, the Supreme Court has emphasized divorcing parties’ freedom and ‘broad latitude’ to settle the financial aspects of their separation by contract as they see fit[.]” Id.

¶10. It is because of this broad latitude that this Court is faced with the hopeless task of determining whether the alimony provision in Stan and Stephanie’s property-settlement agreement provided for lump-sum or periodic alimony. [Emphasis added]

Hopeless task? Hyperbole, you think? Well, judge for yourself; here’s the PSA provision in question:

Both parties do hereby agree that Stan Kittrell each month shall deposit his monthly retirement check from the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) into Stephanie Kittrell’s bank account via direct deposit with the monthly amount of $250.00 considered child support and the remainder as alimony. The child support will continue to be deposited monthly until the child’s [twenty-first] birthday or until the child no longer lives with the mother. The remainder of the check shall be considered alimony and shall continue to be paid until the child reaches the age of [twenty-one] or until Stephanie Kittrell remarries. Stan Kittrell shall receive sixty percent (60%) of the [thirteenth] PERS check and Stephanie Kittrell shall receive forty-percent (40%) of the same until such time as the child reaches the age of [twenty-one] or until the child no longer lives with the mother. Stephanie Kittrell by signing this document agrees to pay the house note on the marital home out of the PERS money she receives from Stan Kittrell.

Stan Kittrell hereby relinquishes all rights and benefits to Stephanie Kittrell’s 401k retirement funds. Both parties relinquish any right to bonuses, rewards, or financial settlements of any kind.

Hyperbole? I think not. Here’s how the COA addressed it:

¶18. We also reverse the chancery court’s finding that the alimony provision in Stan and Stephanie’s property-settlement agreement provided for periodic alimony. The alimony provision does not strictly adhere to the traditional characteristics of either periodic or lump sum alimony. See Lowrey [v. Simmons], 186 So. 3d [907] at 919 (¶33) [(Miss. App. 2000)]. Accordingly, we will enforce the provision as it is written. See id. Because Stephanie did not remarry, Stan was obligated to pay alimony until Dylan reached the age of twenty-one on September 17, 2014. And Stan’s thirteenth PERS check would have terminated when Stan was granted custody of Dylan. We remand this case to the chancery court for a calculation of the specific amount of alimony owed as well as costs and attorney’s fees.

I am guessing that this was not the outcome Stan expected when he signed that PSA back in 2005.

When you draft an agreement such as a PSA, keep in mind that it not only has to reflect the parties’ agreement and make sense to them and counsel involved, it most importantly must be clear enough to make sense to others not involved, and particularly to any judge who will later be called upon to construe it. Again : Draft it, and set it aside for a day or so. Then pick it up and read it over again carefully. Does it say what needs to be said? Then re-read it pretending that you know nothing about the negotiations (like a judge has to do). Is it clear from its plain language just what is intended and what is to occur? If it is intended to be periodic alimony, then say so in plain, unmistakable terms. When you leave it to a judge to figure it out later, your client might not get what she thought she bargained for.

This case also involved a claim for termination of alimony for cohabitation. That’s for another day.

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